Women, cats, and demons: Discover the roots of manga in West Vancouver

Japan's Edo Period gave birth to a popular art form that evolved into modern manga. Visit a world of transformed animals, epic battles, and gorgeous ladies who are literally foxes.

Foxy, lady! This babe is older than she looks: she has her roots in 18th-Century Japan. [Photos by Jordan Yerman; ukiyoe scans courtesy of West Vancouver Museum/Shin'ichi Inagaki]

Welcome to the floating world

Terrifying monsters and beautiful women. Daring warriors and mischievous cats. Operatic drama and bizarre humour. These are a few of the reasons why the art of manga has so many fans around the world.

Maiko Behr, whose Japanese grandmother would send her manga books from across the sea, gave a lecture at the West Vancouver Museum on the roots of manga, and how 18th- and 19th-Century Japanese woodblock prints influenced today's pop culture.

Maiko Behr, translator and curator
Maiko Behr, curator and translator

The word manga (マンガ, or 漫画 for all you kanji fans) simply means "unrestrained picture", or, more to the point, "cartoon". The word first appeared in Japan in the late 1790s, via imported Chinese characters.

Japan was changing: the Edo period was underway, and the country was in a state of relative peace. An art form called ukiyoe (浮世絵, pronounced ooh-key-oh-eh) had emerged. Don't trust Google Translate here; it doesn't mean "Japanese woodblock prints", but rather "images of the floating world".

For the very first time, the literate-but-not-rich were targeted as a market. Stories, educational images, and games were produced and sold in quantity. The most popular subjects:

  • Ghost stories and tales of animal transformation: demons, monsters, curses, and animals that walk as humans.
  • Historical fiction and fantasy: samurai, vendettas, and political intrigue.
  • Educational and interactive images: cutouts, puppets, and DIY toys
  • Cats. Lots and lots of cats.


Puppet-cat is attacking the city!

Graphic design was flourishing, and the graphic novel was being born.

At first, said, Behr, ukiyoe was characterized by black-and-white images telling stories by marrying text to pictures, and today's manga retains that very style. Studies of the human face were common: from minor emotional shifts to holy-shit-that-dude-is-now-a-demon.

From ukiyoe to Dragon Ball
Dude is turning into Jack-Jack from "The Incredibles".

Transfigured animals were huge in ukiyoe. While we in the west roll with werewolves, Japanese folklore took animal transformation in the opposite direction: animals that transformed into humans. Imagine mischievous foxes that would morph into hot babes to mess with farmers. Cats that would walk by night as people to exact bloody revenge.

The images at the top of this story show a modern fox-lady and her ukiyoe predecessors.

Colours, lines, and felines

However, the artist who took it to the next level, the Stan Lee of ukiyoe, was Utagawa Kuniyoshi. This guy brought more colour, richer environments, hotter women, and around a billion cats to the ukiyoe game.

Seriously, Kuniyoshi loved cats. Kiriko Watanabe, Assistant Curator of the West Vancouver Museum, told me that Kuniyoshi even used to carry two or three cats in his clothing when he went for a walk.

Kiriko Watanabe, assistant curator at the West Vancouver Museum
"This was before we had puffy jackets and Gore-Tex": Kiriko Watanabe, Asst. Curator at the West Vancouver Museum

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Comments

Beautiful art

This exhibition is worth a trip to the West Vancouver museum!

Nice article.